Portraits of German American Pioneers: the Work of Moravian Artist, Johann Haidt

Portrait of Anna Maria Lawatsch. Moravian archives, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

I recently discovered the paintings of a little-known but remarkable artist, who has greatly enriched our understanding of the 18th century Moravian Church through a series of portraits of some of its first-generation members in America.

Johann Valentin Haidt (1700-1780), son of a Danzig jeweller, studied painting at Venice, Rome, Paris, and London, where he finally settled and worked as a watchmaker. He grew weary of the deistic Enlightenment thinking of the day and was drawn to the plainer, more sincere devotion of the Moravians. In 1740, at one of their gatherings, he was profoundly moved. “There was shame, amazement, grief and joy, mixed together, in short, heaven on earth. Therefore I had no more question as to whether I should attach myself to the Brethren.”

Haidt and his family soon moved to the birthplace and European headquarters of Moravianism, at Herrnhut in Germany. It was a time of change in the movement and Haidt hit on a novel idea. He wrote to the founder, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, asking permission to paint rather than the usual Moravian missional activities. He felt he could better preserve and proclaim the central message of their faith in paint than in word. So he began painting biblical and spiritual works, while still accepting some secular commissions.

In 1754 Haidt was ordained a deacon in the Moravian Church and was sent to America. A year later he was based at their communitarian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, headquarters of their operations in America. He was sent on missionary journeys to Native Americans from Maryland to New England, but he continued to paint, which among other things brought some income into the movement. He also taught painting. Sarudy’s blog offers fascinating details.

Portrait of Christian Protten and his wife Rebecca, an ex-slave. Moravian archives.

It is his portraits of members of the Bethlehem colony, though, that are Haidt’s lasting legacy. They put a human face to a story that can otherwise be just names, events and places. Sarudy reproduces several from the archives at Bethlehem and Herrnhut. An image search online produces several more. Thanks to the Germanic efficiency of Moravian record keeping, journaling and letter writing, together with their tradition of recording the final reminiscences of members on their deathbeds, we have the precious chance to match a portrait with biographical details. Two examples are the sitters reproduced in this post.

Anna Maria Lawatsch (1712-1760) is pictured above in the plain, even austere dress of a married Moravian woman, not least the Mittel-European two-layer headdress or Haube. The only colourful aspect of women’s clothing was their ribbons: red for young girls, pink for eligible maidens, blue for wives, and white for widows. Anna Maria was an ‘Eldress’, overseer of the community houses for single women and married couples, in several colonies, including Herrnhut. The link quotes extensively from her writings. On her tombstone at Bethlehem the ‘virtue name’ Demuth (humility) is added to her name.

Christian Protten (1716-1769) was the son of a Dutch sailor and an African princess of the Ga tribe. His mixed race features and hair are clear in the portrait. In Denmark he met Zinzendorf and went to Herrnhut. The link reveals some racial prejudice towards him there (he was ‘a wild African’), so he was sent on mission to Ghana; his strained relationship with Zinzendorf, including seasons of ‘shunning’ and a time of separation from his mulatto wife; and final reconciliation and the founding of the first Christian grammar school in the Ga tribal lands of Ghana.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

2 responses to “Portraits of German American Pioneers: the Work of Moravian Artist, Johann Haidt”

  1. edmundtustian says :

    Pleasure as always, my friend. prompts a query: in some TV documentary I heard reference to 3 or maybe 4 missionary Brethren who intentionally chose to be sold as slaves (in the West Indies?) as plantation owners were baring the Gospel from their slaves on the basis of their ‘non-humanity’.
    Never found any other reference to this – even where I might have most expected it. You?

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